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Jacob Lew's Scary Oped Print
Sunday, 06 February 2011 23:08

Jacob Lew, the head of President Obama's Office of Management and Budget, had a column in the New York Times that should really scare the American people. While the purpose of the column was ostensibly to tell the American people that there are few easy budget cuts left, the scary part is that Mr. Lew seems to have little understanding of the economy.

Lew boasts about the huge budget surplus at the end of the Clinton administration. He shows no understanding of the fact that these surpluses were largely the result of a stock bubble, which was inevitably going to burst. The story of the economy's growth at that point was that the $10 trillion stock bubble fueled a consumption boom, which led to strong economic growth.

Of course the bubble was not sustainable, when it burst, the consumption it supported also disappeared. We only recovered from the recession when the housing bubble created enough demand to replace the demand lost from the collapse of the stock bubble.

The underlying problem was the over-valued dollar. This was a conscious policy of the Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who actively pushed a "strong dollar" policy. This policy effectively gave a large subsidy to imports and imposed a large tax on U.S. exports. The result was a huge U.S. trade deficit.

Given a large trade deficit, the economy needs either large government deficits or very low private savings to sustain high levels of employment. This is not a partisan issue; it is an accounting identity.

Mr. Lew shows no understanding of this basic point. Either this top Obama official is ignorant of basic economics or he is not being honest with the American people. Either way, it is an incredibly scary column.

The NYT Doesn't Like Argentina's Economic Policy Print
Saturday, 05 February 2011 22:03

That is what readers of an article on inflation in Argentina would likely conclude. The article tells readers that Argentina's government: "has tried to quell concerns about mounting inflation by continuing to keep the economy growing at China-like rates."

The implication is that having China-like growth rates is a silly distraction from inflation. In fact, China-like growth rates create the possibility of enormous improvements in living standards. Most countries would be delighted to have growth rates half as fast as China has been able to maintain over the last three decades or that Argentina has sustained since 2002. The problem of even relatively high rates of inflation seem small by comparison. In fact, the reason why economists view inflation as a problem is that it can lead to slower growth.

This article is also somewhat confused in trying to describe the problem that inflation is causing in Argentina. It claims that wages are not keeping up with food prices, but that is not the relevant issue. The question is whether wages have kept pace with inflation. The article does not address this issue.

The article includes a quote from Domingo Cavallo that is highly critical of the government. Cavallo is identified only as "a former economy minister." It would have been worth pointing out to readers that Mr. Cavallo was the minister who designed the policies that led to Argentina's crisis in 2001-2002. The Kirchners' government broke sharply with Mr. Cavallo's policies setting Argentina on a path of solid growth. Without this information, readers might think that Cavallo was a disinterested commentator on the economic situation.

The NYT Can't Find Anyone In Germany Who Is Not an Employer Print
Saturday, 05 February 2011 21:06

The NYT told readers that:

"While a jobless rate in single digits would be cause for celebration in many countries, in Germany it is the sign of a critical lack of workers."

Actually, for the vast majority of people in Germany a low unemployment rate is cause for celebration because most of them work for a living. A low unemployment rate both means that they are likely to be able to find work and that they will be in a position to get pay increases through time.

This 2-page article actually presents zero evidence for its claim that Germany is faced with a "critical lack of workers." It reports that:

"employers in many sectors of the German economy are facing labor shortages, under the dual pressures of an aging population and inflation-fighting measures that have kept wages low in comparison with its neighbors."

This is evidence of not very competent employers. If they need workers and can't get them, then the answer is to raise wages. People who run businesses should understand this logic. (It's not clear why "inflation-fighting measures" would keep a business from paying its workers the market wage.)

Some businesses will not be able to pass on higher wages in higher prices. This will squeeze profit margins and might force them out of business. This is the way a market economy works. Workers move from low productivity sectors to high productivity sectors. It is not clear why anyone would think of this as a crisis, although the employers who go out of business are probably not happy.

The article also goes on to complain about worker shortages due to low birth rates and limited immigration. If there are fewer workers this just means that the least productive jobs go unfilled. There will be fewer people working as store clerks in convenience stores, housekeepers in hotels, or as parking lot attendants. There is no obvious economic problem associated with workers moving into more productive occupations.

The Non-Mystery of the January Employment Report Print
Saturday, 05 February 2011 08:39

Most of the news reports on the January employment report expressed confusion over the seeming contradiction between the 0.4 percentage point plunge in the unemployment rate shown by the survey of households and the weak 36,000 job growth reported by the establishment survey. The drop in unemployment in the household survey was the result of a reported increase in employment of 589,000, after adjusting for changes in population controls. This difference is actually not very confusing to people familiar with the data.

The household survey is always erratic. It effectively is measuring the level of total employment in the economy. Even if it is off by just 0.2 percent, this implies an error of almost 300,000. If it errors by this much on the high side one month and then by an equal amount on the low side the following month, it would imply a drop in employment of 600,000 in a context where there was no actual change in employment. Looking back over the last two decades it is easy to find months with large changes in employment that did not coincide with any obvious upturns or downturns in the economy.

For example, in April of 2007 the survey showed a drop in employment of 724,000 at a time when the economy was still showing healthy growth. In May of 2000, also a period of healthy growth, the survey showed a fall in employment of  640,000.

For some reason, probably associated with the difficulty of seasonal adjustments, January is especially prone to show such out of line numbers. In January of 1992, 1994, and 1997, the household survey showed gains in employment (not counting any population control effects) of 512,000, 502,000, and 438,000, respectively. The economy was growing in each of these months, but certainly not at a pace that would be consistent with the creation of 5-6 million jobs a year. In January of 2000, the employment gain (adjusted for the change in controls) was 784,000, which would imply an annual rate of job creation of more than 9 million.

This is why economists familiar with the two surveys tend to rely much more on the establishment survey. This survey is benchmarked every year to the state unemployment insurance data, which is a virtual census since it covers nearly all employers in the country. The establishment survey effectively measures changes rather than levels. There are reasons that it can be inaccurate as well (most importantly in picking up jobs in newly created firms), but the error is likely to be measured in the tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands.

Those desiring a third source of data on labor market could have looked to the data on unemployment insurance filings. The 4-week average stands at 430,000. The economy did not start generating jobs on a consistent basis following the last recession until claims fell below 400,000. A weekly average of 430,000 new claims is certainly inconsistent with the sort of extraordinary job growth implied by the household data. 

National Public Radio deserves special blame for misleading its audience on this one. It told listeners that the economy was actually generating jobs quite rapidly, except for the jobs that involve outdoor work where growth was constrained by the weather. The data don't support this picture. While construction (an outdoor occupation) did lose 32,000 jobs, finance lost 10,000 and information services loss 1,000. Even health care showed very weak growth, adding just 10,600 jobs, less than half the average increase over the last year. 

NPR ironically chose to focus on the courier industry as an especially affected outdoor industry, since it reportedly lost 44,800 jobs in January. However, the reporter apparently missed the fact that the number of jobs in this industry had jumped by an anomalous 46,100 in December. This means the job loss shown in January was most likely just reversing some unusual circumstances that led to a surge the prior month and had little to do with January's weather.

Doesn't Anyone Talk About Unemployment Claims Anymore? Print
Friday, 04 February 2011 06:32

It doesn't seem that the business press is paying any attention to the data on unemployment claims put out by the Labor Department each week. These reports used to generally earn a small story or mention in a larger story on the release of other economic data.

The weekly data are erratic, but they do give a good current snapshot of the state of the labor market. The Labor Department reported 415,000 new claims last week, partly reversing a big jump to 457,000 claims the prior week. The 4-week average edged by 1,000 to 430,000. The economy did not start creating jobs regularly after the last recession, until claims had fallen below 400,000 in the fall of 2003.

Doesn't Bernanke Know That Temporary Employment Is Down? Print
Friday, 04 February 2011 06:00

That might have been an appropriate headline for an article reporting on a press conference by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke in which he reportedly said that employers are hiring temporary workers because they are uncertain about the future strength of the economy. In fact, in spite of recent hiring temporary employment is still down almost 15 percent from its pre-recession level.

The article also includes the comment that "critics" of Bernanke's policy of quantitative easing say that it "devalues the dollar." This is what supporters of the policy would say too. The United States has a large trade deficit. In an economy with floating exchange rates the way in which a deficit is reversed is through a decline in the value of the currency. That is why people to see this imbalance corrected, and see the United States borrow less from abroad, want to see the value of the dollar fall.

The implication of the view attributed to "critics" is that they want to see the United States continue to run large trade deficits and to borrow large amounts of money from abroad.

It Often Snows in January Print
Friday, 04 February 2011 05:20

The NYT's article on retail sales in January was headlined: "Despite Snowstorms, Many Retailers Posted Gains in January." It is important to remember that the comparison is made to January of the previous year. There are always snowstorms in the Northeast and Midwest in January. This is only a factor in the data if the snowstorms were worse than normal. That would not obviously be the case for January of this year.

Btw, it is worth noting that the retail chain store reports are of less value than they had been in prior years because Wal-Mart, which accounts for more than half of chain store sales, no longer reports its sales monthly. Sears, which is the second largest retail chain, also does not publicly report monthly sales. 

It seems the Post is also surprised by snow in January.

The Post Gets Reporting on a "Free-Trade" Agreement Right Print
Thursday, 03 February 2011 05:18
The Washington Post had a piece on Montana Senator Max Baucus's efforts to obstruct the approval of Korea trade pact unless the rules of exporting beef are changed. While the agreement is called a "free-trade" agreement, the article rightly avoids using this description. It simply uses the more neutral and concise term "trade" pact. It can be done.
Car Sales are Up, Compared to What? Print
Wednesday, 02 February 2011 05:56
The media touted the 17 percent increase in January car sales compared to the level reported for January 2010. It is not clear that this implies a very good month, since sales were quite weak in January of last year. The 800,000 level of sales estimated for January is a decline of 17.5 percent from 970,000 average monthly sales for the fourth quarter of 2010. If this sales rate continues through February and March then car sales will be a major drag on GDP growth for the quarter.
The Problem of Structural Unemployment: Really Incompetent Managers Print
Wednesday, 02 February 2011 05:27

The Washington Post had a major front page article highlighting the argument that the reason that the country has high unemployment is that workers don't have the skills needed for the jobs that are available. While it features comments from several employers, the only data that it presents to support this case is that the number of job openings reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is 900,000 higher than the low in the summer of 2009. The number of openings is still down by more than 1,000,000 from pre-recession levels. Furthermore, even if every last job opening were filled (an absurd situation, since there will always be some flux in the labor market), it would still leave almost 80 percent of the unemployed without jobs.

The anecdotal evidence from employers suggests that the problem is that people who run businesses don't understand basic economics. It presents comments from one employer who complains that he can't find workers for jobs that pay $15 an hour. This is not a very good wage. It would be difficult for someone to support themselves and their children on a job paying $15 an hour ($30,000 a year). If the company president understood economics, then he would raise wages enough so that the jobs were attractive to workers who have the necessary skills. 

If the economy were actually suffering from a problem of structural unemployment, then we should be seeing substantial sectors of the economy, either by region or occupation, where wages are rising rapidly. We don't see this. There is no major industry or occupational grouping where there is evidence of large pay increases. We should also see big increases in average weekly hours, as firms try to work their existing workforce harder due to the unavailability of additional workers. We don't see this either.

In other words, the data provide essentially zero support for the claim that the economy's problem is that workers don't have the right skills for the available jobs. All the evidence supports the idea that the problem is simply we have not generated enough demand (i.e. the problem is with the people who design economic policy, not with the country's workers). 

Interestingly, in spite of the lack of evidence, we continue to see stories about how unemployment is structural. Rather than relying on evidence, these pieces invariably include anecdotes from employers who apparently don't understand that if you can't get the workers you need, then you must offer a higher wage. 

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.